Result Not Typical: Improving Political Marketing

Americans have expectations about what actions their elected politicians should take on their behalf. For example, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008: When Uncle Sam decided to bailout the financial institutions whose dubious actions precipitated the need for the bailout, some believed government intervention in the economy was an unfortunate necessary for the greater good, while others felt the government was offering providence where prosecution was due and that the government should be looking out for the voters, not the villains.

In a December 2009 issue of Newsweek, Bill Maher argued that he became comfortable making jokes about the Obama administration when he recognized “that he wasn’t putting it on the line against the insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and big agribusinesses, and the credit-card companies, and the banks.” As the “yes we can” candidate transitions to being the “perhaps we could” president, as communication failures within the intelligence community nearly allowed another terrorist airline incident, as political posturing and revamping “the brand” remain priorities for both Republicans and Democrats, one might wonder if any branch of the government is focused on protecting American citizens.

A careful look at the news reveals that, yes, a few battles are being waged the name of the people.

First, the Feds are standing up to Cap’n Crunch. Not just the Cap’n, mind you – Sugar Bear, Toucan Sam, and an array of other public enemies are all included in the same dragnet. In case you were busy looking for work or juggling finances, news broke that the FDA has busily been writing letters to cereal companies to put the kibosh on so-called “smart choice” claims on cereal boxes (“FDA’s food label crackdown: Sugar cereals are ‘Smart Choices’?”, by Justin Sullivan, USA Today, 21 October 2009) . It’s hard to believe, but apparently, a breakfast cereal that counts freeze-dried marshmallows as half of its contents doesn’t qualify as a healthy breakfast. Big Brother has had enough of manufacturer’s thinly-veiled claims that it is.

Not to be outdone, the FTC is trying to put a stranglehold on snake oil salesman like Jared Fogel. While perhaps less well known than Count Chocula, Jared’s years spent as a pitchman for Subway sandwiches may be coming to an end because it turns out Jared’s stunning weight loss, supposedly the result of a steady diet of turkey hoagies and salami heroes, are not indicative of the weight loss experienced by the average Subway eater. Subway is only an example of this legal endeavor: The FTC is cracking down on any testimonial that requires a quick utterance or fine-print flash of any phrase such as “results not typical” (“Federal Trade Commission’s plan to change rules on ad endorsements, testimonials worries marketers” by Mary Ellen Podmolik, Chicago Tribune, 20 March 2009). Even late night infomercials are feeling the pressure, with InventHelp now advising in a spot that highlights one inventor’s triumphs, “Experience is not typical. Most inventions are not successful.”

Considering this renewed interest in truthful advertising, along with the impending elections of 2010, perhaps the government should expand the scope of their efforts to include the most improbable of marketing pitches: politics.

Most election year political propaganda is a tutorial in selective representation of “the product”: grandiose overstatement of achievements and spurious dismissal of competing brands. The recent Supreme Court decision to allow unlimited corporate contributions will likely raise the stakes on creative exaggeration and hyperbole in political marketing.

Just as consumers need to know that a “heart healthy” tag on a box of cookie-shaped, sugar-flavored nuggets doesn’t mean it’s a nutritious breakfast, voters need to know that assurances offered in a candidate’s paid pitches may not fully or accurately represent the product. Shouldn’t agents elected to some of the most powerful jobs in the nation be held to at least the same standards as spokespeople for sandwich shops and diet pills?

I’m not suggesting draconian changes like those the FDA demanded of Tony the Tiger. Instead, political ads simply need to have disclaimers that inform the listener that the statements contained within may be more marshmallow than whole grain.

For instance, “Yes we can.” Throughout the 2008 election, Barack Obama consistently used these words to inspire his voter base, to infuse his campaign with a sense of urgency and empowerment. What it failed to clarify is that in American politics, “we” is a completely fluid word, incapable of being held within any ideological net. “We” might want to take bold action, but “we” also need to contend with a system that resists such actions, especially when “we” as a collective are more likely to watch television than volunteer to help repair the world.

From what we know now, wouldn’t it have been more accurate to have an asterisk attached: ”Yes we can*”, followed by a footnote, “Results not guaranteed. That we can is not meant to imply that we will.”

Mike Huckabee’s political propaganda featured the tagline, “Faith. Family. Freedom.” Considering the candidate’s views on immigration, the accuracy of that assertion could be improved with an asterisk, and the footnote, “Does not apply to all residents. See website for more information.“

Hilary Clinton ominously warned that we should want someone “tested and ready to lead” when the White House phone rings at 3AM, never mentioning that most of her exposure to the “test” in question came from looking over someone’s shoulder as the exams took place.

As anyone who gets frustrated by the careful parsing of political claims suspects, the problem isn’t going to go away on its own. The quick and dirty oversimplification of both the opponent and the candidate is too efficient for spin doctors to leave alone. Now is the time for the FTC to step up and stop this nonsense.

Or at the very least, write a few sternly-worded letters.